The Ravens offense finished the 2014 season on a resounding high, with a pair of stellar playoff performances against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots.
With Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak calling the shots, the Ravens scored 61 points in the two games, registered 47 first downs, gained 727 yards and generated six scoring drives of at least 70 yards. On 10 possessions, they drove the ball at least 50 yards.
It was quite a show, especially considering how the offense performed in the weeks leading up to the playoffs. As sharp as it was in January, that's how dull it was in December against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns. Baltimore's offense coughed and sputtered, failing to score a touchdown in the first half any of those games against non-playoff opponents.
What changed in January? A more aggressive approach, according to several of those involved.
"Kubiak told us the night before the game that we were going to come after these guys and we weren't going to be playing conservative," offensive guard Kelechi Osemele told The Baltimore Sun after the win in Pittsburgh. "We were coming here to win. We could see that from the first couple of series, the way that we were driving the ball down the field and taking shots and guys were making plays. I really liked it. I kind of wish that we did it the whole year."
The Ravens took four fourth-down gambles in the two games, converting them all. Quarterback Joe Flacco tossed six touchdown passes and generated other big passing plays. After an interception on a second-down deep ball snuffed out a promising final drive in New England, the Ravens universally dared anyone to second-guess the aggressiveness, pointing out that it's what got them that far in the first place.
"You have to play these games to win," Flacco said before the New England game. "You can't play not to lose. You have to go out there and let everything go. You can't worry about the outcome. We're fighting for one big prize. You have to do the things that are going to get you to that point, and that's by playing aggressive football, not having a conscience."
It's likely the Ravens will roll out a different-looking offense in some respects in 2015. Marc Trestman is taking over for Kubiak as the unit coordinator and play caller. The team's top rusher, top tight end and top-scoring wideout from 2014 all need new contracts if they're going to play for the team again.
But Flacco's presence guarantees continuity, and regardless of who is calling the plays or who lines up around him, I think the lesson of the 2014 playoffs is worth noting. The aggressive approach was effective. Flacco obviously loved it and so did his teammates. As Osemele suggested, why not go wall-to-wall with it in 2015?
Maybe they will. The offensive line is returning intact after a strong season in which it gave Flacco plenty of time to operate. The exact makeup of the pass-catching corps remains uncertain, but I'm guessing GM Ozzie Newsome will make sure Flacco has plenty of viable targets. Trestman's coaching roots are grounded in the passing-based West Coast offense.
Most importantly, Flacco, in his prime, has the arm to do it. While he had his best season in 2014, there were times, especially in those underwhelming late-season games, when he seemed cautious. I'm never going to quibble with the dramatic improvements Kubiak engineered in an offense that set franchise records for points and yards, but if Trestman, known for getting a lot out of quarterbacks, can get Flacco to play aggressively more often, the unit might accomplish more in 2015.
As the Chicago Bears' head coach in 2014, Trestman led the NFL in going for it on fourth down. I get the feeling he and Flacco might like each other.
I recognize that it might not be wise to push the gas pedal all the way to the floor for 16 games, that there are times during the regular season when caution is warranted. "The speed of the game is so much different" in the playoffs, Osemele said.
And I'm certainly not advocating that the offense abandon Kubiak's run-first mentality, which worked so well. The physical Ravens are always at their best when they're running the ball. It helped the passing game in 2014.
But with Flacco in his prime and Trestman calling the shots, it certainly would be interesting to put January's mentality to use in other months and see what develops.